A world of flavours at Cosmo, #Norwich [restaurant review]

What springs to mind when someone suggests going to an ‘eat all you want buffet’? If you’re like me (and I’m a bit of a food snob) you might shiver at the thought of a grimy cafeteria with hoards of tourists piling their plates high with cheap greasy food. At least that’s my nightmare memory of the buffet served at a budget motel I stayed in when visiting Las Vegas some 20 years ago.

So you can understand my hesitation when The Lively Crew invited me to a food writers evening at the new Cosmo Restaurant in Norwich. Thankfully the world of buffets has moved on a long way since the 1990s and Cosmo quickly dispelled all sense of trepidation. My first words, on entering the brightly lit restaurant, with its gleaming tiles, chrome and glass food stations and steel serving dishes, were: “Wow, this is smart.”

Cosmo food station Norwich - photo by Huw Sayer

The other thing I quickly noticed was that, despite being early on a Monday evening, the place was busy. Not packed but there was a definite buzz with cheerful families and groups of friends enjoying an amazing choice of food. By the time I left at 7:30 it was three-quarters full and there were 15 people in the lobby downstairs waiting to be seated.

Cosmo prawns on ice - photo by Huw Sayer

If popularity is any guide, Cosmo are definitely doing something (many things) right. As a result, they have expanded rapidly since launching in Eastbourne in 2003. The idea is simple to explain but is difficult to do well: You pay a flat fee for your meal (drinks are extra but reasonably priced) and then you choose whatever you want from somewhere between 60 and 80 freshly cooked main dishes.

Cosmo Mexican grill - photo by Huw Sayer

The food is inspired by cuisine from China, India, Japan, the Americas and Europe. You can return for more as often as you like – and you get a clean plate every time (which impressed me) so you don’t have to mix too many flavours. This is great place to take young people if you want to encourage them to be more adventurous in what they eat, without risking too much waste if they decide they don’t like something.

Cosmo roast beef - photo by Huw Sayer

It’s also ideal if you are going out with a large group of friends who all like different food and can never quite decide on where to eat. There is pretty much something for everyone, from simple roasts and fresh sea food and salads, to spicy curries and aromatic noodles. The food certainly seems as good as anything you’ll get at Pizza Express, Wagamamas, Giraffe, or Yo Sushi (to name just a few popular chains).

Salads at Cosmo - photo by Huw Sayer

Each chef specialises in their particular cuisine. You can even watch some of them (such as the Teppanyaki chef) doing live cooking demonstrations. All the food is cooked in small batches so it is always fresh – and the team works hard to keep all the counters and serving utensils spotless even when it gets busy.

Chinese food at Cosmo - photo by Huw Sayer

Over the course of the evening, I enjoyed sushi rolls, fresh prawns and seaweed complete with wasabi paste, soy sauce and thin slices of ginger – all fresh and delicious. I then had a small helping of Piri-Piri chicken and a selection of Mediterranean vegetables (grilled artichokes, peppers and aubergine with sun-blush tomatoes) on a bed of crisp, peppery rocket leaves. Finally I tucked into some spicy Hong Kong noodles and beef in black-bean sauce.

Cosmo corn - photo by Huw Sayer

Unfortunately I was driving so could only try a few sips of the house wine. But both the white and the red were definitely drinkable: the Pinot Grigio was crisp and refreshing and the Merlot was smooth and fruity. For those of you looking to round off your feast with something sweet, there’s a tantalising array of delicate desserts…

Cosmo puddings - photo by Huw Sayer

…and a spectacular chocolate fountainCosmo chocolate fountain - photo by Huw SayerOverall

Did I enjoy my meal? Yes (and, if I’d been paying, I would say it was good value for money).

Would I go back? Yes – although not for an intimate meal or for a light snack but certainly if I wanted a fun evening out and plenty of choice.

Any tips? Yes – book if you are going as a large group, particularly if you don’t want a long wait for a table at the weekend (including Friday night).

Thank you to Valerie and Mike from The Lively Crew for inviting me – and to Johnathan Wong (Cosmo’s Training and Auditing Officer) for being our host for the evening.

PS: All the pictures above are ones I took on the night as I went round (they weren’t staged and are not stock shots).

We’re blogging for charity

We are using our blogs to raise awareness of an excellent local charity called Nelson’s Journey. If you enjoyed this post, please help a grieving child by donating £1 (or more if you can spare it) to Nelson’s Journey today. Thank you.

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Thank you for reading

This is one in an occasional series of posts about social media and business communications. If you find them interesting or useful, please give them a star or five and share with others. I hope you will join the conversation by adding your views below or contacting me on twitter or Google+

Kind regards

Huw 

@HuwSayer / @Business_Write

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#NFDF2014 visit to @WoodfordesAle – famed for its #WherryBest beer.

Following my visit in July to Crisp Malting, which malts the finest barley in the world, a trip to Woodforde’s brewery was the obvious way to follow the local links from the grain to the glass.

Woodforde’s, like the village of Woodbastwick it calls home, is quintessentially Norfolk. From its trademark Wherry logo and its location in the heart of the Broads, to the local water and premium malt in its award-winning beer, it epitomises the best the county has to offer in food and drink. Similarly, Woodbastwick has a fine church, a cluster of cottages set round a small green and, like many Norfolk villages, a decent pub.

Copyright Woodforde's - with permission

It’s the beer, the whole beer and nothing but the beer

The Fur & Feather is thatched and red brick like the surrounding properties, with locally sourced food every day and, best of all, its own brewery next door. This is Woodforde’s only pub – the firm doesn’t have a large property portfolio or a diversified business. Consequently, as Managing Director Rupert Farquarson makes clear, “the company lives or dies by maintaining the excellent quality of its beer year in year out.”

That quality has been evident since two members of Norwich’s home brewing community turned their passionate hobby into a thriving business in 1981. After the dark days of the 60s and 70s when it seemed the only beers were Watney’s Red Barrel or Double Diamond, the craft beer pioneers were almost guaranteed a hero’s welcome from thirsty drinkers. Wherry certainly hit the mark and, after a couple of years on an industrial estate in Drayton, had to move to larger premises in Erpingham, next to the Spread Eagle pub (now the Erpingham Arms), to cope with rising demand.

A fire almost destroyed the brewery a month later, but the business rose from the ashes – and launched a special IPA called Phoenix to mark its survival. Since then it has grown steadily, building a loyal following not just in Norfolk but also across the UK, as its popular online ordering service proves. It moved to Woodbastwick in 1989 and in September 2014 it resurrected Phoenix as a guest ale to mark just over 30 years since the fire.

Copyright Woodforde's - with permission.

The secret to great beer – great ingredients – and master brewers

Just 15 years after its launch, Wherry won the title CAMRA Supreme Champion Beer of Britain and the company has gone on to win numerous accolades since, including two at this year’s Norwich beer festival. However, the crowning glory came when The Good Pub Guide 2015 named it UK Brewery of the Year. This is great news for Woodforde’s and for Norfolk, which boasts more than 20 pubs in the guide, including The Rose & Crown in Snettisham, which won the Pub of the Year award.

The three main ingredients in all Woodforde’s beers are local water (from its own borehole), malt and the hops. The brewery team works closely with local maltsters (Crisp Malting and Simpsons) to ensure they get the finest brewing malt made exclusively from Norfolk barley, mainly the world famous Maris Otter. “We always buy the best,” says Brewery Manager Bruce Ash, who is one of only 71 Beer Sommeliers in the world. “Our reputation depends on it.”

Woodforde’s tends to use English hops for their bitter flavour and Slovenian hops for their aromatic qualities. “Many brewers use processed hop oil or dried pellets because they are cheap,” explains Bruce, “but we only use whole hop flowers because we want to ensure a full flavour.” Fittingly, it used purely English Golding and Challenger hops for its Royal Norfolk Ale, which it brewed to commemorate the sacrifice of the local regiment in WW1 and to raise funds for its benevolent fund.

Supporting the local community

“The term ‘ethical’ is perhaps a bit overused in business these days,” admits MD Rupert, “but we do strive to put something back into our community. After all, most of our employees are Norfolk born and bred – we even have three members of the same family on the team – and they stick with us because they like our attitude, as much as our beer. In fact, three people have been with us for over 25 years, including Bruce who worked his way up from being an apprentice.”

Woodforde’s commitment to the local economy is also evident in its brewery shop (run by Juliet Jones) where it stocks food and drink from 16 other Norfolk producers. It is like a permanent indoor farmers market and well worth a visit – particularly in the run up to Christmas if you are looking for a special present for the gourmet in your life. Feast your eyes on the current selection:

JubberwackyBooja Booja

Yare Valley Oils

Norfolk Sloe Company

Essence jams and chutneys

Algy’s popcorn

Chillis GaloreNorfolk cider

Broadland Wineries

Saffire Handmade Chocolate

Orchid Apiaries

The Little Fudge Stall

Norfolk CordialGnaw

Channell’s Norfolk Preserves

Lady Jay’s Preserves

Peachey’s Chutneys

For a delicious, festive family day out, you should pop along to the brewery’s Christmas Open Weekend (6-7 December). Along with beer and wine tastings, there will be a hog roast, a local food marquee, carol singers and free brewery tours. As further proof of the brewery’s support for local producers, it doesn’t charge pitch-fees for the marquee – which is a particularly generous gesture in these tricky economic times.Copyright Woodforde's - with permission.

Woodforde’s also supported the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014; sponsoring the Aylsham Slow Food Festival and Ormiston Families’ Walk with a Fork, as well as running a food & ale matching evening. In 2015, as in previous years, it will continue its involvement in Norwich City Of Ale Festival in May and the Norwich Beer Festival in October. It will also brew a special ale for the Maris Otter 50 celebrations in September, to mark the revival of the malting barley that is a favourite of craft brewers the world over.

Supporting pubs across the region

If that was not enough, Woodforde’s is again organising the East Anglian Ale Trail. Now in its 15th year it has become one of the biggest in the country. The trail features around 700 pubs – including some 330 in Norfolk. That is enough for a dedicated beer drinker to enjoy two stops a day, every day of the year – and there will be prizes for those who complete different sections of the trail. This is a great way to support local pubs and craft beer makers, not just Woodforde’s (although it obviously does help).

Declaration

This is not a sponsored blog (none of mine are) but Woodforde’s kindly gave me a bottle of Norfolk NIP and a bottle of Tinsel Toes to taste. However, I’m saving them for the festive season – when I can try them with a slice of delicious Christmas cake from Dozen – so will report back on them later. Rupert also donated a box of six assorted bottles of Woodforde’s beers for the Nelson’s Journey Christmas quiz. Thank you to all the team at Woodforde’s for your hospitality and generosity, especially Rachael Shakespeare for arranging my visit and showing me round the brewery.

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We’re blogging for charity

We are using our blogs to raise awareness of an excellent local charity called Nelson’s Journey. If you enjoyed this post, please donate £1 (or more if you can spare it) to Nelson’s Journey today. Thank you.

JustGiving - Please sponsor us

About this post

This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them (if you do, please give them a star or five).

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

@HuwSayer / @Business_Write

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#NFDF2014 Days out in Norfolk – Part 2: celebrating our food & drink heritage

Naturally, you have all read part 1 of this series on days out in Norfolk (haven’t you), so you’ll know that the following visits weren’t directly food and drink related. However, we didn’t go hungry and in one instance we tried a new (to us) local delicacy – which illustrates the role of food and drink in Norfolk’s tourism offer (as Pete Waters at VisitNorfolk often points out, it accounts for nearly 30% of visitor spending). More importantly, most of the attractions have strong links with or celebrate our farming community both past and present and remind visitors of its importance to the local economy.

WARNING:
This is quite a long post – so grab a coffee (or beer or wine), get comfortable and stay awhile.

Tuesday 5 August – The Great Hospital, Norwich

The Great Hospital (a #Norwich12 heritage building) is an amazing institution that has been at the heart of community life in the city for over 700 years and still provides sheltered accommodation for local people. Although it opens The Lodge each Friday between April and September, the church, cloisters and medieval refectory are normally closed to visitors to protect the privacy of the elderly residents. However, as well as hosting special functions (such as weddings and conferences), the Great Hospital holds occasional open days and we took the opportunity of going along to one during the recent Norfolk Open Churches week.

Aside from seeing this historic building with its beautifully carved dragons in the brackets on the roof beams (much like those in the equally splendid Dragon Hall, another one of the #Norwich12), I was there to see fellow Norfolk Food & Drink Champion Charlie Hodson, who had recently been appointed Executive Chef at the Great Hospital. Over excellent tea and cake (made by Charlie’s talented team) we chatted about how he was introducing more locally produced food to the menus both for residents’ meals and for the grand occasions. If you ever get invited to one, leap at the opportunity because the food will be delicious and you will know that Charlie has paid particular attention to its provenance.

http://www.camrovision-landscapephotography.co.uk/

Blickling Hall by Paul Macro

Saturday 16 August – Blickling Hall

I’ve walked round the park at Blicking plenty of times – it is beautiful in all seasons – and sat in the courtyard to watch an open-air performance of Pride & Prejudice (which was great fun) but oddly I had never been inside the house. So it was a pleasure to finally walk past the grand heraldic bulls that stand either side of the main entrance and step through the ancient oak door into a hall that has greeted royalty, politicians and members of high society for hundreds of years. Now a National Trust property, it has been preserved to look like the family house it once was, with a minimum of ‘museum’ type signs.

It’s a fascinating place, with beautiful furnishings. Although I quickly tired of all the portraits of long dead nobles in their finery (one ruffed earl is much like another), I did enjoy reading about life below stairs and listening to the archive recordings of interviews with some of the last people to serve as butlers and cooks when it was still a private residence. The painted arts & crafts style decorations on the ceiling in the ‘brown room’ had a wonderfully irreverent feel , which perhaps explains why the last lord to live there had them covered up. And the gardens were beautiful, particularly the parterre with its formal structure of yew topiary inter-laced with wide herbaceous borders in hot and cool colours.

However the real surprise, and in many ways my favourite part of the visit, was the little RAF museum, commemorating the women and men who had served at RAF Moulton during WW2. It’s packed with personal belongings from the airmen, photographs, maps, and period memorabilia, including facsimile newspapers you can read and anecdotes from those who risked (and in many cases gave) their lives in defence of our liberty. It really is a poignant place and worth the price of admission alone.

After quickly dropping into the Hobart Gallery to see an excellent exhibition of landscape photos by Paul Macro and Stephen Mole (who have kindly supplied pictures for this post), we headed over to the Muddy Boots café. I’m not normally a big fan of National Trust cafés – there is something of the school canteen about many of them and the hot food never looks that appetising. However, on this occasion I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy a large mug of very good coffee and an excellent scone (that tasted ‘home made’ rather than mass-produced) with clotted cream and jam. I was also pleased to see that, in a nod to buying local, they stocked Parravani’s icecream.

It’s worth remembering that the National Trust doesn’t just preserve fine buildings but is also an active landowner. As well as the woods and parkland, Blicking has around 3,500 acres of farmland, which generate an income to support the estate. This farming heritage is celebrated every year when the park plays host to the Aylsham Agricultural Show – if you missed it this year, make a note to visit in 2015.

<<Grab a refill!>>

Sunday 17 August – Bircham Windmill

I admire bold industrial architecture – and in many ways prefer it to the grand houses of the aristocracy. It tends to be eminently practical and, like all good engineering, wastes little on unnecessary frills and adornments. I have a particular affection for Norfolk windmills – the old type used for grinding corn (or, in some cases, as wind-pumps for draining fields) – in part because they remind me of my family roots.

My great-grandmother, Charlotte Varina Johnson, was the daughter of a Norfolk miller, James Johnson. From about 1850 to 1890 the Johnson family owned two mills (one wind-powered and one water-powered) on Scarrow Beck, which borders the Blickling Estate. Charlotte went on to marry Hubert Burgess, a local farrier, who died in World War 1 having been gassed while tending to horses in the trenches and whose name is on the roll of honour in Erpingham churchyard.

Digression over: Bircham Windmill (which is in working order, although it no longer grinds flour) is not just a fascinating industrial heritage attraction. It is also home to a number of rural enterprises, including an excellent bakery, a craft shop, a campsite and a self-catering cottage. You can either buy delicious breads, cakes and sticky buns to take away – or you can enjoy them as part of a meal in the tea room (which also sells pork pies made by a local butcher – naturally I had to try one and it was delicious).

As well as being able to climb up inside the windmill – making sure you keep well away from the machinery – you can actually walk out onto the little balcony that runs round the tower half way up and even step out onto the platform right at the top by the ‘fantail’ (not for the faint hearted – especially when the wind is gusting Force 5-6 as it was when we visited).  There are various exhibits inside the windmill explaining its history, how it works and how it was restored. It really is quite fascinating and makes you realise just how hard a miller’s life was and how integral is was to the community.

Outside there are various animals for children to pet and feed, including sheep, goats, rabbits and guinea pigs, and there is a pony they can ride. You can also watch the sheep being milked everyday – which is a great way for children to learn that milk doesn’t just come out of a bottle – and you can buy the wool for spinning and knitting. Sometimes you can watch someone demonstrating how they make cheese from the milk. Unfortunately they weren’t there when we visited – but we did buy two of the four cheeses they make: Norfolk Charm, and ‘feta style’ Miller’s Fancy.

Both cheeses were delicious and well worth trying if you can get your hands on some. The Charm had the texture of Wensleydale but with a richer flavour – it worked well crumbled onto hot pasta. While the Fancy had a fresh flavour (I preferred it to traditional Feta because it was less salty but still had that lovely creamy texture) and worked well in a salad with olives. I am not sure if you can buy these cheeses in any other shops – best call the windmill if you are interested – or visit (when it’s not too windy).

http://www.camrovision-landscapephotography.co.uk/

River Bure by Paul Macro

Sunday 24 August – Canoeing on the River Bure

Now I’m probably not the most adventurous chap you’ll ever meet but every so often I do like to get out into the countryside and explore ‘the path less travelled.’ And what better path to explore than a stretch of one of our county’s beautiful rivers? Not the river path mind but the river itself – in a canoe – with some bush-craft and archery lessons thrown in for extra fun. That’s just what is on offer from the Canoe Man with his Swallows & Amazons adventure day.

The Bure Valley is a beautiful part of Norfolk – with gently rolling hills, winding lanes, broad fields and lush water meadows. The upper reaches of the Bure are particularly tranquil because no motorboats are allowed beyond Coltishall and there are no big roads nearby. Aside from the occasional mournful hoot from the little steam engine running on the Bure Valley railway, all you can hear are the birds, the grazing cattle and the wind in the willows.

We joined a group of seven other people (one family up from Cambridge on a day trip and another from London camping at the Top Farm near Marsham) and were led by an extremely knowledgeable young man called ‘Monkey’. Having met at Wroxham (which was pleasantly bustling even at 10:00 on a Sunday morning) one of Monkey’s colleagues drove us to Buxton Mill where we picked up our canoes. From there we paddled downstream for about an hour and a half (at a leisurely pace) to a secret campsite in a small wood near Hautbois (pronounced Hobbis).

After a packed lunch (we all brought our own – so we enjoyed sourdough bread and chocolate brownie from Dozen, as well as home-cooked lemon chicken made with excellent local free-range chicken from Harvey’s) we had fun making campfires and learning about various survival techniques for starting fires – some of which were quite spectacular. We then spent about an hour pretending to be Robin Hood – there is something particularly satisfying about the sound of an arrow thudding into its target.

The canoe back took longer because we were paddling against the (albeit gentle) current and a pretty stiff wind that every so often would sweep the unwary into a bank of reeds – resulting in much muttering and back paddling. It was exhausting but in that satisfying way you get with hard physical work, like chopping logs or digging the garden. The final treat was a small tub of Ronaldo’s ice-cream from the tourist information centre when we got back to Wroxham – a perfect end to a perfect summer’s day – thank you to all the Canoe Man team.

River Bure in winter by Stephen Mole

River Bure in winter by Stephen Mole

Monday 25 August – Gressenhall

We certainly had the best of the weekend weather on our canoe trip – and the worst of it on our visit to Gressenhall. We chose this attraction over the Aylsham Show because our daughter particularly wanted to see the special ‘Village at War’ exhibitions commemorating both world wars.

Despite drizzle in the morning, turning to torrential downpour later, we had a marvellous time and the various groups of reenactors put on a brilliant show in period British and US uniforms and civilian costumes. I was particularly moved to see the ‘farrier’ with his portable furnace – looking much as my great-grandfather might have looked on a rain drenched field in northern France a hundred years ago.

WW1 Farrier at Gressenhall (photo used with permission).

WW1 Farrier at Gressenhall (photo used with permission).

Even without the military themed events, Gressenhall is a fascinating place – if you haven’t been and you have even a remote interest in the history of rural life, you must make a day of it. As well as an immense amount of moving detail about the place itself, which was once a workhouse, there are numerous displays telling the story of Norfolk’s farming heritage both in the main building and down on the farm. One of my favourite rooms in the house looks at the archaeological evidence of early hunter gatherers and the development of agriculture in Norfolk, with an amazing collection of flint tools.

The farm not only demonstrates traditional (pre-heavy machinery) farming techniques but also plays an important role in the conservation of some our native rare breeds – including the magnificent Suffolk Punch, the (to my mind) lovely large black pig, fine Red Poll cattle and Norfolk horn sheep. We were lucky enough to see two of the Suffolk Punch in action pulling an early harrow over the stubble field – it was a beautiful sight and felt as if we had travelled back in time.

Inside the farm buildings there are more displays telling you about the animals, the wildlife on the nature trail, and the people who lived on, worked and shaped this land over the centuries. This is the heritage the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival celebrates each year – so it seems fitting to have visited just days before the launch of the 10th and biggest festival. We hope you enjoy this year’s festival as much we have enjoyed championing it – and we applaud all those who have volunteered to make it such a success by organising so many varied events.

We’re blogging for charity

We are using our blogs to raise awareness of an excellent local charity called Nelson’s Journey. If you enjoyed this post, please donate £1 (or more if you can spare it) to Nelson’s Journey today. Thank you.

JustGiving - Please sponsor us

About this post

This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them (if you do, please give them a star or five).

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

@HuwSayer / @Business_Write

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